Sunday, February 1, 2015

Messy Closets

You know that room in your house, the one that you close the door to when visitors come over? Maybe yours in not a whole room, but just a closet or if you've really got it together just a drawer. It's the place where you throw things that have no home, the place you prefer not to go looking for stuff, and the place that you'd need an expert to you just ignore and continue to throw stuff in, shut the door and act like it doesn't exist?

Well, over the past few weeks I have discovered something similar in my classroom.

Shortly after Christmas break I attended an LDC workshop (I don't know what the letters stand for...only that talking in code seems to make everyone feel more important so we say everything in acronyms). At the workshop we were forced encouraged to create a learning module in which our students would read various content-related texts and use their learning to produce a written product. Throughout the module students will be writing smaller pieces to practice their writing skills.

Sounds good right?

I must admit that we never did much writing in my classroom prior to this adventure, other than the typical short answer question which was mainly math-related. So, I began asking my students to write more, to do things like
  • Justify your response.
  • Provide evidence to support your claim.
  • Analyze the validity of a given claim.
  • Rewrite a given claim, correcting errors in grammar and/or reasoning.
What I have discovered has been a bit intimidating. Things I thought the students understood...they really don't, and even worse...I have no clue how to fix it. I could have the students read more, write more, experiment more, but we may be on the same chapter until Spring Break waiting on them all to understand.

Like that closet that you don't know how to organize, I have no clue how to get inside these kids brains and set the record straight. Worse yet, there isn't just one closet to organize, there are 30 at a time and many more than that in a day.

Part of me wants them to stop writing, stop reminding me that you really don't understand. Let's go back to doing chemistry math-style...where you just plug some numbers into a formula and we do practice problems until you memorize how to do the problem so you can do it on the test, and I promise I won't ask you to explain what your answer means. I'll just keep pretending that you get it. Deal?

Does this make me a horrible teacher?

This morning as I listened to a debate on common core, I wondered if part of the problem is that so many teachers and parents are feeling this tension. (Side note: I am aware that there is a lot more to common core and the issues are deeper than I am discussing here). Because when we ask students to explain why 3 x 5= 15 and they can't, we don't know how to help them. Wouldn't it be easier if we just went back to memorizing multiplication tables?

Because if we don't know that they don't understand, we won't lay away at night thinking of ways to explain it better, and we can make it through more than a few pages of leisure reading without being haunted by the discrepancies.

I am still not sure how I will respond to these feelings. On Monday, will I choose the rough but honest road? Will I open those closet doors, invite students to help me begin rearranging--throwing out misconceptions and organizing misplaced facts--and celebrate each improvement they make, no matter how small? Perhaps I will take the slightly smoother road? I am tempted to slam shut the messy closets and go play in a different room, where we can lounge on algorithms and prop up our feet on our pretty numerical answers!

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